Knit, Purl, Decode

a-tale-of-two-cities-granger My recent posts discussing the perennial favorite, A Christmas Carol, got me to thinking about the oeuvre of its author.

Besides the incomparable Christmas novella of Charles Dickens (my previous posts begin here), other books by Dickens retain their reputation as “classics.” I can’t remember my first reading of A Tale of Two Cities, but I recall the impression it made on me.

The contrasts Dickens uses give us a glimpse into this dramatic period of history and upheaval. As the novel says in its opening paragraph, this era was “the best of times” and “the worst of times,” and with the French Reign of Terror as a backdrop, Dickens moves on from this initial description to lay out one of his bleakest narratives.

Dickens was of course closer to the actual events about which he wrote than we are today. His concern about the England of his day (and Dickens thinking there was a possibility England might be following down the same road of sorrow as the French experienced) may have factored into his intent for writing this novel. Whatever his reasoning, he created believable characters struggling through a nightmarish clash of ideologies and lawlessness. There are characters who display heroism and others deeply involved in evil. The book definitely portrays the entire human condition.

Besides the actual tale itself, knowing this story unfolded in installments has always intrigued me. In recent years, I’ve read several writers who suggest serialization is making a comeback. (Of course, if by serialization, these writers somehow equate installment fiction of old with the regularity of blog writing, my intrigue diminishes.) I remain hopeful − but skeptical − that a 21st century kind of serialization is possible; I’d like to see such ventures succeed. So far and to my disappointment, currently available episodic reading material (other than classics like a Dickens serial novel) has failed to engage me.

One of the other intriguing elements about A Tale of Two Cities specifically is a practice described in the novel:  the art of tricoteuse. As a knitter myself, knitting is a creative endeavor I enjoy. The possible genealogical connection with German poet Der Stricker (weaver and knitter of tales, mentioned in this post) causes me to view all things knitting through a more personal lens. (I get positively territorial.)

Hence, the art of tricoteuse as depicted via the despicable fictional character of Madame Defarge bothers me. Defarge turns a positive creative expression (knitting) into a negative record of hate. Dickens shows how destructive and all-consuming Defarge’s drive for vengeance has tainted her “art.”

Tricoteuse also appears in another novel set during the same time period, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. The heroic main character, English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney, employs various disguises (including the tricoteuse motif) in order to rescue French citizens condemned to a grisly death via the guillotine.

opart1In Orczy’s novel, the fictional Blakeney’s portrayal of a tricoteuse seems less objectionable (to me) because Percy is saving people rather than cheering their deaths. Am I making a distinction without a difference here? (I’m open to other points of view.)

Whenever I’m knitting a piece, I often think about the fictional tricoteuse. What methods did these knitters use to craft enduring (and highly meaningful) pieces of art? I’ve read a variety of articles suggesting possible code patterns. I’ve even considered the way in which I would design a piece for this purpose, but I’ve never been entirely pleased with my final designs.

Perhaps that’s the mystery of tricoteuse:  a pleasing result might be too easily deciphered. And then, what would be the point?

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A Christmas Yet To Come . . .

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here’s another glimpse of the marvelous universal narrative presented in A Christmas Carol. After the Ghost of Christmas Present has disappeared from Ebenezer Scrooge’s sight, the old man began to understand his own sad, even hopeless, state. He’s ready for reformation and seems anxious to stand face to face with the last of three spirits Jacob Marley promised would appear, this one The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Scrooge is clearly perplexed by this specific presence who neither speaks nor moves, but conveys its message (and terror) nonetheless.

christmas-future-2Scrooge has experienced a new understanding about himself during these night-time visits. He’s immediately aware when this last spirit appears that he will be shown things that may potentially occur. However, the dusky shroud of presence that appears to him is more fearful than either of the other apparitions. He feels “uncertain horror” when the “ghostly eyes” fix upon him.

At this point though, Scrooge seems more than eager to bear what is before him and to “do it with a thankful heart.” The tale that unfolds from here − without the apparition uttering a word − wholly transforms Scrooge. Before the wraith disappears, Scrooge begs:  “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life?”

Even if you’ve read it before, you won’t be disappointed to re-read the novella today. Once more, the question begs to be asked:  what relevancy does A Christmas Carol hold for those of us living in the twenty-first century?

Charles Dickens was a brilliant man. Today (Christmas Eve) represents for us (as it did for Ebenezer Scrooge) our Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Not a second of Christmas Yet To Come so far has been written in stone. From Scrooge’s example, we’ve seen how Christmas Past and Christmas Present offer opportunities for selflessness in the Christmas Yet To Come.

How did Dickens portray the change in Ebenezer Scrooge? It was a complete reversal from Scrooge’s previous Humbug attitude. In Scrooge’s case, it meant adopting a spirit of generosity. It meant swallowing his pride for all the vileness he’d sown and shown to people around him. As Dickens reminds, he even learned to laugh again, and “… for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh.” He learned to heartily embrace the words Merry Christmas!”

Celebration of Christmas isn’t strictly a religious practice. It is that to be sure, yet I acknowledge there are many who celebrate the occasion without relating the day to faith. Likewise, A Christmas Carol doesn’t happen within a religious context, but it is still something of a morality tale. The central character is seeking salvation from the wretched life he’s known and when he realizes how despicable he’s been in the past, he’s eager to embrace transformation (another religious concept).

holyfamilyovalJust before the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come disappears, Scrooge grabs hold of the spirit’s spectral hand. Scrooge frantically declares:

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

The stone to which he refers is, of course, his own tombstone (notice the tombstone in the picture above). For me, Scrooge’s final plea to the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come brings the entire seemingly non-religious tale into beautiful spiritual perspective.

“Tell me,” Scrooge implores. “Tell me.”

Yet Scrooge is surely old and wise enough to realize no matter how he changes his life, no matter how good he becomes − honoring Christmas in his heart and trying to keep it all year − the day will inexorably arrive when a death date is carved into his headstone.

The latter pages of the tale relate how Scrooge honors Christmas in his heart, but the real nugget of the story comes in Stave 2 (while The Ghost of Christmas Present is visiting) when Dickens refers to Christmas, saying:  “… it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”

Interestingly, Jesus offered similar advice in the first verses of Matthew 18:   “… unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

A Christmas Carol isn’t meant to be a religious tract, but Dickens and the Babe in the manger acknowledge the same language of love and reconciliation upon which Christmas is (once and for always) the capstone.

A Christmas Past

1923-xmas-happy-scroogeLike Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, every one of us has a Ghost of Christmas Past. I don’t suggest we’ve encountered ghostly presences such as Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased former business partner. When I consider the idea of Christmas Past, I’m looking through the lens of experiences that have marked our lives, sometimes adversely, to contribute to the person I am (or you are) today.

Humbug! may not be your knee-jerk response to greetings of Merry Christmas, though it appears to have been a typical Scrooge expression. Whether you celebrate Christmas in traditional fashion or you don’t celebrate it at all, it’s almost inevitable that one’s life experiences have parallels to Ebenezer Scrooge. Look back at your life. Am I correct?

ebenezer-scroogeAttending boarding school as a child, Scrooge experienced extended loneliness, feelings of abandonment, social and familial alienation. Those feelings brought lifelong scars. Later, as a young adult, his gruff personality already entrenched into selfishness, his fiancée walks away from their relationship. This appears to have been a crushing blow for quashing all tenderness in the aging Scrooge. When in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Past, he seethes with anger, underscoring the bitterness on which he’s fed for years.

Thinking of Christmas Past, the story of a young couple comes to mind. It’s a post-war era and families around the world are exchanging gifts and feeling enough of a distance from World War II to celebrate the hope of peace (though battling nations rarely lay down arms or hatred for long). Optimism is on the uptick. Housing is beginning to pick up, jobs are on the rise, and the Baby Boom is making history.

Still, this post-war era seems fraught with uncertainties:  Mahatma Ghandi is murdered, tension between India and Pakistan threatens further escalation, the Soviets blockade West Berlin, South Africa institutes apartheid, Israel becomes an independent state. Earthquakes kill thousands. WWII is past, but peace seems desperately out of reach. (A perilous world similar to the days when Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem.)

Like Mary and Joseph, the story of this young couple centers on an impending childbirth. However, the similarities screech to a halt there. This young Gentile couple already have a son, born two years earlier and three days after Christmas. Now, they’re awaiting the birth of a second child who arrives late in the evening of Christmas Day.

Unlike the first Christmas parents, this couple has no divine instruction for naming their daughter. When they choose an unusual French name, their seemingly whimsical choice surely creates a stir. What’s wrong with Mary or Susan or Linda or Barbara (the popular names that year)? Does anyone cattily suggest the young father had a wartime French girlfriend of the same name?

No matter. The couple ignore idle talk, focusing instead that this child with the unusual name is their Christmas gift to each other. They suffer no illusions their child will save the world; they simply love, nurture and do what they can to provide a peaceful home life for her and her siblings. (Yes, four younger siblings arrive in the years that follow.)

This is of course my Christmas Past (and that of my parents). That unusual name Renée I wear today had the potential to be Michelle Renée (Daddy’s choice) but Mamma overruled and I became Renée Louise.

In contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge, the events of my early life thankfully didn’t draw me into bitterness and lost relationships.

Nevertheless, my naming definitely worked to frame my identity. Sharing the same (traditional) birthday as Jesus, I understood from an early age a desire to confirm a personal relationship with him. Then one day, I discovered my name’s meaning:  reborn. That I am and when Christmas Day arrives each year, I’m mindful I share a birthday with the Savior, but one day I will be forever in his presence.

This, as the angel told the shepherds, is truly the “… good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-11) Good news indeed!